The best kind of journalism takes you for an unexpected ride. It connects dots you never would have thought to connect. It flips things, so that at the end, the world looks very differently than it did before. Netflix’s new original documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press does all of these things, to various degrees, in the process both celebrating and sounding an alarm for the ability of a free and independent press to survive the machinations of the billionaire class.
And it all starts with a sex tape.
Director Brian Knappenberger’s (We Are Legion) latest film was originally entitled Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press, and the scandalous trial involving the wrestler and the now-defunct online gossip empire is very much the focus of the first half of the film. And honestly, the film could easily have filled its running time without ever venturing beyond that trial. It’s a “stranger than fiction” cocktail packed with sex, lies, scheming billionaires, and the sort of surreal vertigo one can only experience from watching Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea explain to a lawyer that yes, Hulk Hogan has a 10-inch penis, but he, Terry Bollea, does not have a 10-inch penis.
Knappenberger is keen to use the trial as a launching pad to explore more dire matters, however. It would be easy to dismiss Bollea v. Gawker as a pure sideshow, a punching match between unlikable people on all sides. But Nobody Speak is quick to highlight the second half of its title, examining the Gawker lawsuit as an assault on the First Amendment by a billionaire with a grudge.
The billionaire in question is Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal in 1999. Long before the gossip site lit the fuse on its own doom with the Hogan sex tape, Gawker had earned the ire of Thiel with several articles on him, including a 2007 article where he was outed as gay. In a May 2016 New York Times interview, Thiel admitted to helping finance Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which eventually drove Gawker into bankruptcy. (It was later sold to Univision, which initially banned its newly acquired employees from screening this documentary.)
Thiel described the act as one of the “greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”
While Gawker regularly straddled the lines of both good taste and basic human decency, Knappenberger’s film correctly points out how unsettling a precedent it is for a billionaire to essentially help take down a publication he personally doesn’t like. Knappenberger soon takes the implications of this one court case in a direction anyone living in 2017 could probably predict: The ongoing war between President Donald Trump and the media he regularly accuses of purveying “fake news.”
Using the Gawker case as a starting line is a deft move because Gawker is hardly a sympathetic entity, even if the individual journalists involved may be. But since Gawker was, as it’s described in the film at one point, essentially the high school “mean girl” of the online journalism world, the argument very much becomes about the principles involved, rather than the people. If a free and independent press is crucial to the functioning of a healthy democracy, the billionaire class declaring war on it should alarm all of us, regardless of political affiliation.
After delving into Thiel’s involvement and the weirder aspects of the Bollea v. Gawker case, Nobody Speak then takes a sudden and unexpected trip to Las Vegas. Here it examines a thematically similar but otherwise unrelated case involving a billionaire family’s 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. This final segment contains some of Nobody Speak’s best moments, and certainly the most inspirational. But the leap from the Hogan/Gawker/Thiel storyline to this third-act digression is jarring. It’s not hard to see the parallels Knappenberger is making, and it allows for the director to end the film with a passionate and rousing defense of the Fourth Estate, but the film could have benefited from a more graceful transition.
Nobody Speak isn’t perfect, but the structural hiccups for the most part don’t diminish a funny, frightening, frustrating, and important film. In a world of alternate facts, Nobody Speak reminds viewers just how important the truth-tellers are—even the unlikable ones, and especially when powerful people want to silence them.